Monthly Archives: August 2015
M(3), 8/31/15: Searching for the Willingness
For the record, I am sitting and typing this blog with the quiet hum of an air conditioner as my only background noise. I actually forgot the air conditioner made a noise, since it’s been drowned out by endless re-runs of Malcolm in the Middle and various Xbox games. Oh and the occasional sibling argument! Back to school = Golden Silence.
Today’s meeting centered around Step 8 in the 12 steps of recovery:
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
I had a few people groan aloud when they realized we would be reading and discussing step 8… August, the eighth month in the year, is a popular time to discuss this step, and it is the last day of the month. Therefore, regular meeting attendees have had their fill of this topic.
Note to self: it might be time to switch up my literature rotation.
Despite the moans and groans, the meeting was an interesting one, in that the conversational focus was on a different part of the step than usual. Typically a Step 8 meeting focuses on the question, “Who exactly should make the list?” This conversation then winds around to what exactly do we mean we say “Harm?” And then, inevitably, the shares will turn into stories of the following step, which is the actual making of amends.
Today, however, the focus was on the second part of the step, the part where we actually become willing to make the amends. Because you can know you’ve harmed a person, but you can also not want to right that wrong for a whole bunch of reasons. Some people think, “why bother? that person is out of my life?” Some are unwilling due to pride or ego: “No way am I making amends after all that person’s done to me!” The list of why not’s could go on for awhile.
But it’s important to realize, for those deciding to use the 12-step program to recover: you are not ready to tackle the often challenging step 9 of making amends until you have finished the entire of step 8.
And how best to become willing? Pray for the willingness, meditate, whatever you do to calm and center yourself, do so specifically around this issue.
A second theme of today’s discussion: why it’s important to do such a thing in the first place. Who the heck wants to sit around and think about all the people you’ve ever hurt in your life? Knowing all the while that the list is then going to turn into an even worse job… going around and making amends to these people?
The why is simple: to untangle the relationships that you’ve complicated with your addiction. Even in the case of the person not realizing it, the point is if they’re making your list then you realize it. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule of making amends, and those exceptions are covered in the following step, but overall the reason to create a list is to clean up your side of the street. It has more to do with you than it does with the person harmed.
The last point of discussion was another interesting one: there is something to do while you’re waiting to become willing to make amends. And it’s a simple one, and in most cases goes a long way towards the amends process:
Stop doing the behavior
If your habit was to drink too much and then… fill in the blank: stay out too late, drunk dial/text, pick fights, become a crying drunk, fail to tuck in your kids, ad infinitum. Stop doing it! Come home on time, call and text positively, be there for your friends and family, spend extra time with your kids.
By the time you are actually ready to tackle the amends process with the list you’ve made, I would bet the vast majority will say that your amends will be to keep doing what you’ve been doing since you got sober.
There will be more to discuss on the topic of amends in a couple of weeks when we read step 9. Until then, any 12-step readers with insights to share on step 8, I’d love to hear it!
I am proud to say that I’ve written an article for the website addiction.com. Check it out if you are interested in a little more of my backstory than I usually write about here!
M(3), 8/24/15: There is No Standing Still in Recovery
The number of attendees in a given meeting is not an indication of the impact of a meeting. Which very well might be stating the obvious, but clearly I am not very good at predicting how meaningful a meeting is going to be.
Because when I started the meeting this morning and saw only 8 people, and only regulars (the gentleman from last week was disappointingly absent today) were present, I assumed I’d be operating the meeting on cruise control.
I should know better by now than to make such predictions.
For the record, the literature we used this week is As Bill Sees It, a collection of excerpts from conference-approved sources. It is similar to a “Best Of” album, and it is organized topically.
Knowing that one woman, regularly attending for 3 or 4 weeks now, is on the newer side of sobriety, I asked her to look at the index and select the topic that appealed to her. She selected “alcoholism as an illness.”
Then we started the meeting, and that same woman announced that she was celebrating 30 continuous days of sobriety for the very first time in her adult life! Her excitement and pride were absolutely contagious, and I was almost as proud to present her the very first sobriety “chip” she has ever received. Celebrating anniversaries is always a joy, and celebrating someone’s first anniversary ever is even more special. It was a great start.
A few more attendees came in moments after starting, so the number went up; two in particular I was happy to see. First was a friend in the program who’s been away on a number of summer vacations. Second was a gentleman that I know from a variety of meetings over the years, and sporadically at the one I run. I know him by name, and well enough to exchange pleasantries, but he appears to be an intensely private person. In all the meetings I’ve attended with him, I’ve only heard him speak once or twice. I know he’s been around quite a bit longer than me, but that’s about it. Even with our lack of communication, it’s always nice to see someone you haven’t seen in a while.
We wound up reading 5 of the 16 readings on the topic. It’s always a good thing when we share more than we read! Here are some of the highlights discussed:
- Remembering that we have the power of choice when it comes to drinking alcohol. Many of us, myself included, remember well a time when we thought ourselves the victims of circumstance when it came to our drinking careers. When we chose to become willing… willing to listen to the suggestions of others, willing to put down the drink one day at a time, willing to consider a different way of living… we realized this was a choice that dramatically changed our lives for the better.
- Remembering that we are offered a daily reprieve, rather than a cure. A friend shared that she is witnessing the fallout of a family member’s relapse; after a decent number of years, he began drinking again, and his family had to uproot themselves to get him to a rehab. She said watching the relapse from the perspective of the devastation it causes the family is a stark reminder why she needs to remain diligent with her recovery.
- A lively discussion came out of the question of the morality of alcoholism. The consensus of this morning’s group: once in possession of the knowledge that we have the disease of alcoholism, once in possession of the tools to achieve sobriety, we have a moral responsibility to make use of those tools so that we don’t pick up the first drink.
- Distinguishing between a spiritual awakening and a spiritual release. The book gave the example of one of the co-founders of AA. Dr. Bob had a spiritual awakening very early in his recovery; his release from the compulsion to drink, on the other hand, took a number of years. This was an important topic for our group, because some are still struggling with the desire to drink even after a considerable amount of time in the program. Knowing that you are not alone in this struggle is a crucial means of easing the burden of craving.
- The last reading spoke of not being alone on the journey of recovery, and how important it is to feel a part of a community. It is possible to get sober alone, but having a sober support makes the process much simpler, much less painful, and much more meaningful.
And all of this wisdom shared would have been enough to make the meeting a great one. But then two things happened:
The friend who came in just as the meeting started finally shared towards the end of the meeting. It turns out, she is struggling mightily with a lack of support in her recovery. It was clear that sharing this personal information was difficult, but it was miraculous to see how the simple act of sharing it made such a tremendous difference: her posture straightened, her face brightened, she was able to engage fully with others. It reminded me, yet again, how important it is to share what’s going on with us.
The second person who came in late, the gentleman who never shares, raised his hand. Funny sidenote, I almost missed his raised hand because I’m not used to looking in his direction… to my knowledge, he has never shared in this meeting. As it turns out, he has always found it hard, in his 13 years of sobriety, to share, because he is a quiet person by nature. It also turns out that he is open to the suggestion that he needs to share, because after 13 years of sobriety, he started drinking again, and he can attest to the fact that the moment the alcohol entered his system, the phenomenon of craving began. By the grace of God he is sober this morning. He has been encouraged not only to attend meetings regularly, but to raise his hand and share what’s on his mind.
And he knows enough that he needs to take the suggestions of others in order to get back on his recovery feet.
I imagine that opinion would differ about what is most powerful to witness when you are a regular attendee of 12-step meetings. I’ve heard people say that watching a newcomer enter a room for the first time is a powerful reminder of why it is important not to pick up a first drink. I’m sure others would speak of watching the transformation of that same newcomer as he or she works the 12 steps of recovery to be the highlight of meeting attendance.
But for this recovering alcoholic, there is nothing more powerful than to hear someone with sober time speak of relapse. When someone opens up about what happened to make him or her lose his or her way, what happens with the progression of the disease, and, most importantly, how much more painful it is to recover the second time around… that’s the stuff I’m taking away from this morning’s meeting.
My original miracle was to light-heartedly talk about this being the last Monday of summer before the kids return to school, but now I must keep it simple: I feel incredibly blessed to be sober today.
M(3), 8/17/15: The Dangers of Complacency
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted an anecdote that relates to this blog’s tagline, There Are No Coincidences. Guess that means it’s time for one. There’s a bonus, too: this one’s got layers!
Yesterday a series of events led me to searching through an external hard drive. I discovered a Word document with an intriguing title, so I opened it, and found a letter written by me to another family member, dated November 2005. The letter describes my journey to my then current state of being two months sober.
For those reading who don’t know my full back story, my (God Willing) permanent sobriety date is in 2012. What I did not know at the time of writing that 2005 letter was that period of sobriety would only last about a year or so.
I had some mixed feelings reading about that time of my life. On the one hand, I felt pride, because that letter was a surprisingly honest and accurate depiction of the timeline of events that led me to choosing sobriety.
Dismay and shameful feelings upon re-reading events about which I had forgotten.
Feelings of regret when I wrote, even at two months sober, that “AA is not for me, because I can’t really relate to the people I meet there.” I think I stopped attending meetings almost immediately following that letter.
Finally, feelings of curiosity, as I was writing this letter because some family members had questioned my decision to identify as an alcoholic. I concluded in the letter that I was unsure as well, but that for the time being, sobriety seemed the right choice for me.
I wondered ruefully if those family members have changed their minds in the years since.
So yesterday was an introspective day, lots of “what if” scenarios played out in my head:
- What if those family members were right, and I somehow could have figured out a way to moderate drinking?
- What if I had remained sober that entire time period, what would be different in my life?
- And the worst case scenario: what if I hadn’t chosen to get sober in 2012?
The nice part of all this rumination is the conclusion: I needed every part of my journey to get me where I am today, the questioning, the heartache, the trial and error. I’m grateful for all of it.
Long-winded back story, but I promise it’s going somewhere. The scheduled reading for this morning’s meeting was step 8, made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. But at the last moment a newcomer walked into the room and let us know he was a little over 30 days sober; this was his first meeting after rehab.
I made a quick decision, and ran it by the group for agreement: read out of meeting order, and read step one, we admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable.
I can remember, even now, how preposterous the later steps sounded when I was in early recovery. I sincerely doubt that this gentleman was ready to hear about the details involved in making amends. The group agreed.
As we were reading the chapter, I wanted to laugh out loud at some of the lines, and how much they related to what I had written back in 2005:
Many less desperate alcoholics tries AA, but did not succeed because they could not make the admission of hopelessness.
Check and check, my conclusion in 2005 that my problem drinking was a result of circumstances, and it was most likely a temporary problem.
The answer is that few people will sincerely try to practice the A.A. program unless they have hit bottom.
Yep, also true for me. I needed that gift of desperation in order to make the necessary change!
I could list a dozen more examples, but the point has been made that reading my 2005 letter, then reading step one, provided the perfect reminder of what happens when you fail to make sobriety a priority.
After I shared all of this, many other meeting attendees with much more wisdom, not to mention sober time, raised their hands to share their insight regarding step one.
One gentleman reminded us that there are two parts to this step:
- admission of powerlessness
- acknowledgement of unmanageably
Often, it’s impossible to tell which comes first, but it is essential to accept both in order to proceed with the remaining 11 steps. The powerlessness and unmanageability are inextricably combined.
Another attendee spoke of alcoholism being the disease of denial. It’s a vicious cycle: the disease has us denying that we have a disease. How to break the cycle? Remove the alcohol from our system, and follow a few simple steps.
Yet another shared the power of two critical lessons from his early days: staying sober one day at a time, and staying away from the first drink. He remembered thinking how ingenious these two simple ideas are, and he has used them every day for the past 38 years!
The next person to share also spoke of how devastating denial can be. She was able to put down the drink, but remained a dry drunk for years because she insisted she “was not like the rest of us.” She finally got to the point where she had to either surrender completely, and follow the instructions given within the 12 steps, or pick up a drink to end the misery. It’s been 24 years, and she’s never looked back. As she puts it, “it’s such a great way of living, why not follow the steps?”
Finally, the newcomer raised his hand to speak. Being unfamiliar with the typical meeting format, he opted to share his history with drinking. Having started in 1958, he could see a steady progression of the disease until he sought some help…
wait for it…
He was able to stop drinking for…
wait for it…
a little over a year before he decided he could drink again.
Crazy, crazy stuff. Our stories deviate in that he kept going past 2012, but he’s here now, and I’m really hoping we see him again next week.
Listening for the similarities, rather than the differences, is a miracle!
M(3), 8/10/15: Ghosts of (Drinking) Demons Past
Small, quiet group at this morning’s meeting, unfortunate because I would have enjoyed taking the backseat in terms of sharing.
On the other hand, I had plenty to share, so I suppose everything happens for a reason.
The reading selection(s) came from the book Living Sober. An attendee shared with me before the meeting that she is newly sober (2 weeks!), so I asked her to select the chapter(s) that appealed most to her. She selected 2:
Remembering that alcoholism is an incurable, progressive, fatal disease
Those of us choosing recovery have tried numerous ways to disprove this concept, but the fact remains for each of us: once having identified alcohol (or other mind-altering substances) as a problem, there is no way to turn back into the fun-loving, so-called normal drinkers we recall ourselves being at an earlier time in our lives.
At this point we have two choices: wail and moan about the liquid we can’t imbibe, the drugs we can’t take, the “fun” we can’t have, or we practice acceptance in the same manner a person with a strawberry allergy learns to live life without consuming that particular fruit. The great news in all of this is that the practice becomes astonishingly easy with time, and the fun we have in sobriety is far more meaningful than any fun we had in active addiction.
Fending off loneliness
This chapter speaks to many points within the subject of loneliness. First, it talks of the self-imposed isolation that many of us created in active addiction; even in a crowd, we felt alone.
It touts the many benefits of reaching out for help in recovery, and the pitfalls of thinking you can figure things out on your own… the bleakness of the road ahead, the circular logic of being your own advisor, and the eventual conclusion that it would be easier to drink than to live life in this kind of misery.
Finally, it explains how having a network of recovered people can most effectively demonstrate how to live your best sober life. There is tremendous freedom in knowing you can admit your deepest fears, your most shameful secrets, your ignorance of something that you worry should be basic, to a group of like-minded people. And when you receive validation that you are not alone in your fear, shame and anxiety, it is like applying a balm to an inflamed bruise.
I have said this on many occasions, but Living Sober is like a how-to manual for the newly sober. It is easy to understand, and contains an enormous amount of practical advice that can be put to use immediately.
But it contains such wisdom even for those of us with a few years of sobriety under our belts as well. When I mentioned I had a lot to say at this morning’s meeting, I’m not just speaking in generalities. I am home from a weekend away where the primary activity for most of the attendees was drinking. Eating was a very close second, but upon my arrival, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a decent percentage of the crowd was feeling good, in the ethyl alcohol sense.
So this morning, as I read the chapter about alcoholism being an incurable, progressive, fatal disease, I was reminded of having those few seconds of feeling sorry for myself early in the weekend. Why do all these family members get the luxury of a social lubricant, but I can only sit and watch?
The answer, of course, became apparent as I watched several of them at the end of the evening as they slurred, and wobbled, and made spectacles of themselves in front of the rest of us. Now sober, I can watch as the more serious drinkers draw together, and I am consciously aware that I would have been in this group. Not only would I have been in the group creating the spectacle, I would have most likely been the ringleader. And as I observed the current ringleader, I not only watched his behavior, I also watched the people observing his behavior. And I was consciously grateful that I no longer have to live that way.
And the next morning, as I enjoyed my morning coffee, I was grateful again: no wincing at the sunlight, no jack hammer working overtime in my head, no nausea as I enjoyed the spread of food. No desperation in trying to remember the stories everyone was reliving, and worrying about what I did or said that I couldn’t remember.
No regret, no remorse, no shame.
When I read the chapter about loneliness, I was reminded how important it is to share about the weekend I just experienced. Sharing the experience, and the feelings it evoked, allows me to reconfirm my commitment to sobriety, and it provides the listeners an opportunity to relate to the experience. Once I opened up about how the weekend made me feel, both good and bad, each member of this morning’s meeting had a story that related to mine.
And a bonus, at least I hope it was a bonus: it provided an example for the 2-weeks-sober woman from which to learn. We’ll see if we see her next week!
Recalling an amazing weekend with family I love minus regret or shame is a miracle I will never take for granted.
M(3), 8/3/15: The Power of Sharing
Just back from the longest break I’ve taken from my Monday morning meeting, as well as the blog! This morning felt like a welcome back party for me… 14 attendees, an incredible number for a summer meeting. Three of those attendees were brand new to both sobriety and this meeting. Newcomers have a way of energizing the group, because no matter where we are in sobriety, we can look back and remember well the experience of being new to a room full of strangers who have figured out a way to stop drinking.
Because of the newcomers, I went back to the beginning of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (also referred to as The Big Book), and we read the chapter “There is a Solution.” My tendency, when faced with sharing with newcomers, is to remember how the readings sounded when I was trying and failing to get sober, and contrast those memories with how much I take from the readings now.
For example, this chapter describes in detail the life of a “real alcoholic.” I remember reading this chapter in the early days and feeling relief, because nowhere in that description did I see myself. “Whew!” I thought, and continued to drink. I suppose I glossed over these lines:
We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a month or a week ago. We are without defense against the first drink. -pg. 24, Alcoholics Anonymous
When I read those lines this morning, I remembered vividly an event that happened almost nightly in my active addiction.
3:00 am, or thereabouts
I awake with a start, having
passed out fallen heavily asleep a few hours before. I awake with a feeling of dread that affects every cell of my being: my heart is racing, my head is pounding, swallowing is next to impossible for how thick my tongue feels. I know with certainty that sleep is a distant memory, so I make my way to the dark, empty family room downstairs.
I leave the lights off and sit, waist-deep, in a tar pit of guilt and shame. The only thing that keeps me from siding under is the panic of attempting to recall what I might have said or done throughout my hours of drinking for which I will have to answer in the morning. Did I make any drunken phone calls? Pick a fight with my husband? Leave alcohol lying about the house?
As I process the previous hours to the best of my ability, I consider the insanity of the situation from a problem-solving perspective: what can I do to prevent this from happening again? It hits me like a lightning bolt. Just don’t drink tomorrow. By not drinking, I will not have to panic about what I drunkenly did or said, I will sleep through the night, and I will feel physically better.
The feeling of relief upon hatching this plan is palpable. I can breathe again! I am feeling so much better having made this promise to myself I am able to climb back up the stairs and sleep for another hour or two before the day begins.
The next morning, I remember this plan and I feel triumphant: today is the day! I will simply not drink and all will be well. This jubilant feeling takes me all the way to 4 pm, and the memory of my ritual glass of wine start to crowd in with the memory of my middle-of-the-night promise.
In a few moments, the lure of that glass of wine grows stronger, and the 3 am promise grows dim.
A few moments after that, I couldn’t, even if I wanted to, remember the insomnia, the physical discomfort, the guilt and shame of 24 hours before. And, let’s face it, I do not want to remember.
I pour the first glass of wine, and I make a new promise: just have one or two, I reason, and I will have the best of both worlds.
I’m pretty sure we all know how that night’s story ends. If uncertain, start at the line that starts Time: 3 am.
That memory, which took seconds to recall, hit me like a thunderbolt as I read this morning’s selection. I shared it with the group, which, not coincidentally, is the most important tool I’ve been given in my 12-step program: get the thoughts, no matter how dark, how painful, or how shameful, out of my head and into a group of understanding, like-minded, sober individuals.
In my 3 1/2 years of sobriety, sharing what is going on with me has never once yielded anything but positive results. I always, always, feel better for having shared what is troubling me.
Which is the other big component of this chapter:
But the ex-problem drinker who has found this solution, who is properly armed with facts about himself, can generally win the entire confidence of another alcoholic in a few hours. Until such an understanding is reached, little or nothing can be accomplished. -pg. 18, Alcoholics Anonymous
From my sharing of this experience, others chimed in with things impacting their lives: upcoming vacations, flying alone for the first time in sobriety, first sober weddings. And each member reported feeling better just for having voiced the concern aloud.
Then the bonus: plenty of experienced ex-problem drinkers to share experiences of their first sober vacation, wedding, and flight, with practical solutions for each.
Functioning electronic devices were a huge challenge on my vacation, so my miracle (in addition to the meeting itself) is the ability to publish this post!